Sunday, June 22, 2014

Cleopatra's Daughter review

Reading historical novels is like going to a Hollywood premiere.

There is a cast of thousands, but only a few people eat up the scenery. They're called stars.

In many historical novels, you already know the star, and you probably already love/hate her/him. You know the story. The ending is rarely in doubt, although you often find yourself hoping against hope things will turn out better than you know they did. Take Cleopatra, for example. I always want her not to end up in that mausoleum with Antony dying on the floor, the asp in the basket, and Octavian at the door. I want it, but the end never changes, no matter how much I hope.

Then, there are some novels about the supporting actors, the  people who don't spend much time in history's klieg lights. Hitler's niece, the woman who read to Marie Antoinette,  the fictional daughter of Elizabeth I, or Charlemagne's wastrel son.  Just as Wolf Hall offered Cromwell's very welcome and fresh perspective on the Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn saga, books told from the POV of the supporting actors can reignite our passion for familiar stories.

Enter Cleopatra Selene, daughter and only child of THE Cleopatra and Mark Antony  to survive into adulthood, captive and ward of Augustus Caesar, and finally Queen in her own right. Selene mingled with some major stars who have fascinated us for centuries and became a star in her own right in the following novels:

I'm a BIG Michelle Moran fan. I loved her previous novels about Nefertiti and Nefertari. I also really liked her novel about the French Revolution told through the eyes of Madam Tussuad. Which is to say, I was pre-disposed to like Cleopatra's Daughter.

I liked it. I'm glad I read it. I just didn't love this novel. Given the subject matter, I wanted it to grab me by the heart, and it didn't.

The books opens strongly with Cleopatra's children playing dice and waiting for news about the outcome of their father's final battle with Octavian (Augustus). The ominous overtones of the family gathering quickly disintegrate into chaos in the palace with faithful servants fleeing, Mark Antony dying, Cleopatra committing suicide and abandoning her children to their fate, and the arrival of Octavian who may or may not kill Selene and her two brothers. Tension. Excitement. Life changing drama. After that scene, I almost felt the tension and drama melting away.

What didn't bother me: Numerous reviews talk about a lack of historical accuracy. I found the story close enough for a work of fiction. The intricacies of an ancient society are hard to convey to a modern audience. Yes, patrician women took their clan names; so Mark Antony's two daughters were literally Antonia Major and Antonia Minor. I'm OK with nicknames, which they probably had. No, women probably didn't become architects in Rome (as Selene does); but she had an indisputable impact on the architecture of Mauretania when she became its Queen. So I'll let that slide, because she might have had a few lessons in the subject. Yes, it does read rather like a YA novel, but we are seeing this world through the eyes of a 12-15  year old girl. Numerous reviews touched on what they thought was Selene's too modern sensibility about slavery; but as one reviewer pointed out, her opinion might have changed when she became a captive and potential slave rather than a princess.

What bothered me:  The writing is steady and even, but there are few highs or lows. Selene's character  is likable. Other characters are also likable, and some are despicable. They just don't have enough THERE there to make me love or hate them, which meant I didn't care much about what happened to them or root for their triumphs and downfalls. For example, in another of the Selene books, I wept at the death of Selene's youngest brother. His character was so finely drawn, his death left a hole in both Selene's world and my impression of that world. In this book, the brother's character is so one-dimensional and Selene's reaction so ho-hum, it feels like a check-box to tick on the plot outline. Ditto the drama with her twin brother's homosexuality; her antagonism toward her future husband, Juba; the prolonged mystery of the masked avenger; and her feelings about Octavian and Livia. Even Octavian's high-spirited daughter Julia (who surely deserves her own novel) is a rote character, and so are hints at what the Tiberius character will become.

In short, this Selene has about an inch of emotional depth, and her struggles (which surely must have been great) come across as petulant teenage angst. So, if you want a quick read about what happens after THE Cleopatra dies, this novel does a good job, but don't expect any stars, red carpet, and klieg lights.